Craftsmanship

Reflections of our universe in design and craft.

Guest post by Laurie Smith on geometry, continuing the discussion that was begun here

We are all intimately connected to the universe. At each new sunrise we witness the eternal geometry of the sun as it rises clear of the Earth’s horizon and its light, in flight through space, enters our eyes and burns its image on our retinas. The sun, the Earth, and our eyes are all spherical and our irises are circular. Circularity is fundamental to movement.

Inside the dark Earth we can find minerals, cooled from molten lava into crystals with triangular, square and hexagonal sections, the three angular shapes that pack together without intervening space. Angularity inhibits movement and provides stability.

Circularity and angularity are opposite yet interrelated geometrical forces that govern our world and, like male and female, their fusion brings harmony and strength. The carpenter knows that inside the circularity of a tree there is an angular timber, stable and strong, a part of the natural world that is perfect for building.

When the structure of our world is governed geometrically, what could be more natural than to design using geometry, a spatial language that gives us good proportions and buildings that are in harmony with our surroundings. The geometrical module above left, which was carved into a timber of a Welsh hall-house in 1460, can be opened like a flower to design the building’s section, lower left, which shows the hall’s nave, aisles and massive spere posts.

Draw two lines that cross at right angles and where they cross draw a circle. The circle is a plan of the Sun, the Earth and the Moon. Draw six more circles around the circumference of the first and you will discover that they fit exactly. And then, if you draw straight lines between the points where circles overlap, you can construct a triangle, square and hexagon, the three angular plans of mineral crystals. The hexagon is also the plan of a bee’s honeycomb cell, and if you draw straight lines between the hexagon’s angles, the plan of a snowflake. Each circle is the plan of a bird’s nest and the circles overlap to form the petals of a flower. The natural world is designed to geometrical proportions.

When we design our own homes we can choose to follow nature’s path. The simple geometry described above and related compass geometries have been used to design buildings for at least a thousand years, right up to the present day. Geometrical design brings good proportions and simplicity of form, qualities that are in harmony with the natural world and pleasant to live within.

Geometry: The gateway drug to an enriching life.

I had the honor to first meet and work beside Laurie Smith at the Medieval Geometric Workshop that took place in the Fall of 2008 at Cressing Temple, which is located between Witham and Braintree in Essex, England.

Cressing Temple is the site of three impressive timber frame buildings: the thirteenth century Barley Barn and Wheat Barn, described by historian Michael Haag as "the two finest Templar-built barns in Europe," and the later Granary building. The Barley Barn is an early thirteenth century (c. 1220) barn modified in later centuries, and is the oldest standing timber frame barn in the world.

The two barns were designed using the medieval geometric principals of the time. Rather than being purely mysterious and magical (which they also are) geometric design is quite practical when designing buildings and has the result of creating intuitively harmonious spaces.

While we were there, we built a small garden seating area based upon the same geometric ratios as the two great barns. "No Maths No Power" was the rule, so we set aside our modern tools, such as spirit levels, pencils, and tape measures. The simple step of not using numbers and mathematics expanded the world of design right before our eyes.

Below are a few pictures of the workshop. As you can see, it's a great deal of fun and there is nothing like working hard with others to create something beautiful to share with the world.

Outside of being the principal educator in medieval geometric layout in the world, Laurie Smith is one of the most wonderful, intelligent, engaged, and humorous people you will ever meet. Not to mention that while touring through various towns in England, and being at least 30 years his junior, I could barely keep up with his brisk pace.

Should you want more info about Laurie or to engage in his services please see his website.

 Converting trees to beams, two men "juggle" together. To keep a steady rhythm a song is sung.

Converting trees to beams, two men "juggle" together. To keep a steady rhythm a song is sung.

  Hewing surfaces with an ancient axe to a degree of flatness I had never seen.

 Hewing surfaces with an ancient axe to a degree of flatness I had never seen.

 Setting out datum points based on the geometric proportions.

Setting out datum points based on the geometric proportions.

 Me trying my hand at pit sawing.

Me trying my hand at pit sawing.

 An overview of the yard.

An overview of the yard.

 Interior photograph, showing some of the joinery inside the Barley Barn.

Interior photograph, showing some of the joinery inside the Barley Barn.

 English Tying Beam with Lapped Brace inspired from the great barn's joinery. Something worth noting is that the boring technology needed to create the ubiquitous mortice was not as developed in medieval times, so lapped joinery is quite common. Personally I rather like them.

English Tying Beam with Lapped Brace inspired from the great barn's joinery. Something worth noting is that the boring technology needed to create the ubiquitous mortice was not as developed in medieval times, so lapped joinery is quite common. Personally I rather like them.

 The inscription on the inner tie beam carved by Rupert Newman says "A frame for Cecil and Adrian." Cecil is Cecil Hewett, author of a number of pivotal books on historic carpentry. Adrian is Adrian Gibson, a colleague of Cecil and a great historic buildings specialist. Adrian and Laurie Smith worked on the geometry of the great barns at Cressing Temple.

The inscription on the inner tie beam carved by Rupert Newman says "A frame for Cecil and Adrian." Cecil is Cecil Hewett, author of a number of pivotal books on historic carpentry. Adrian is Adrian Gibson, a colleague of Cecil and a great historic buildings specialist. Adrian and Laurie Smith worked on the geometry of the great barns at Cressing Temple.

 The inscription on the outer tie beam carved by Rupert Newman says "Grow Beauty in The Garden of Your Mind." This faces out into the walled Elizabethan garden. The phrase was written by Laurie Smith.

The inscription on the outer tie beam carved by Rupert Newman says "Grow Beauty in The Garden of Your Mind." This faces out into the walled Elizabethan garden. The phrase was written by Laurie Smith.

 The man himself, Laurie Smith, pounding a peg home.

The man himself, Laurie Smith, pounding a peg home.

 As the youngest member of our crew, Nathan Jones attaches the ceremonial whetting bush.

As the youngest member of our crew, Nathan Jones attaches the ceremonial whetting bush.

 Our three instructors, Laurie Smith, Joel Hendry, and William Clement Smith, standing under the completed timber frame.

Our three instructors, Laurie Smith, Joel Hendry, and William Clement Smith, standing under the completed timber frame.

Community, Conservation, and Craftsmanship

Something Jack A. Sobon once told me and I never forgot is that the goal in designing and building a home for a client is that the home will never be sold. A good home will become part of the family. People will change their jobs and their lives to keep a home that inspires them.

How far we have come from that idea. Even, and I'd say especially, in American Timber Framing, we see homogenized designs and frames regurgitated ad nauseam and trotted out as "craftsmanship." You've probably seen it yourself — the ubiquitous Hammerbeam Truss (poorly designed and executed at that) in the glossy magazine spread. If they repeat it long enough, we just might lower our expectations enough to forget what this amazing craft has to offer the built environment and the people who are blessed to live in our homes.

So this year, I ask all my fellow craftsman to uphold traditional American values by not setting the bar so low that mediocrity is celebrated as craft. And I ask all the clients out there to want more than what they've been sold in the centerfold.

Together we have a chance to create homes that represents our deepest held values of community, conservation, and craftsmanship.

Raising the bar

Craftsmanship is a word that gets tossed around by many people, but in most cases it does not actually apply to the built environment that we share. We have diminished the definition of craftsmanship to allow entry for anyone — and in doing so we have lost touch with what is possible with training and dedication.

We've traded real craftsmanship for manufactured materials that can be installed by the least skilled labor available.

And it's not always financial limitations that are driving the choice towards utilizing this type of labor. Often what I see is there is simply no forethought or skill employed, due to individuals and companies that have no business being involved in building. The ubiquitous pickup truck, skill saw and dog appear to be their only qualifications.

What we ask from a home today is much more complex than it was 50, 100, or 500 years ago.
It's imperative that the builders of today not only have developed themselves in craft,  but also keep up with building science and green technology. This is one reason why resurrecting traditions such as the Timber Framers Guild is so important: it gives builders outside accountability and stringent standards to compare their work to.

Our work stands out because of our exemplary training and forethought, which we bring to all aspects of our projects. We bring in decades of dedicated craft training, and the value of that for a client cannot be overstated. We're striving to raise the bar and standards in our community and elsewhere.

All too often people approach me and tell me that they really wished they would have had my company do the work for their home. They have regrets and were often led down a direction that they are ultimately unhappy with. Building a home is often a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and no matter the size, it is one of the largest investments a person, or company can make.

Why risk your project to mediocrity, when you can work with the best? Our clients come from all walks of life, but the one things they share in common is a desire to create something with integrity, intention and beauty.

 


The joy of labor

People can argue about the benefits and drawbacks of various building systems, but one thing that's often left out is the joy of the craftsman and how that translates to the homes that are created and the communities they inhabit.

Our shop is full of joy and the satisfaction of creating beauty that will last for centuries. And our enthusiasm rubs off on our clients. When the work at hand inspires the person creating it, that translates directly to the value you receive as a client.